Mark 9:30-3730 From there Jesus and his followers went through Galilee, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. 31 This was because he was teaching his disciples, “The Human One will be delivered into human hands. They will kill him. Three days after he is killed he will rise up.” 32 But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.
33 They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” 34 They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” 36 Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”
In one of the providential “coinkidinks” my five year-old grandson and I were watching a re-run of “The Lion King” last night. After the scene where King Mufasa dies saving his son Simba from the mortal danger his folly and the machinations of his evil uncle Scar have placed him, my grandson commented, “A lot of stories have people dying so that others can live. Why is that, Opa?”
After I picked up my jaw from the floor, I responded, “Well, most people think that the best way to show love for others is to give your life so others can live. That’s what Jesus does for us. Even though we’ve done a lot of wrong things, Jesus gave his life for all of us so we can all live. And we know this because God brought Jesus back to life! That’s God’s way of saying, “Way to go, Jesus! That’s just the way I love my creatures. You’re going to live and so are they!
This anecdote seems to me instructive in regard to this passage. I may be taking a bit of liberty with the text but let me offer this reading. The disciples don’t understand Jesus’ perplexing prediction of his own demise. Afraid to ask him to explain (did they not want to appear stupid?), they pool their own ignorance all the way to Capernaum.
Jesus stops the group in Capernaum. They enter a house, the place for the disciples to ask Jesus for further explanation of his teaching in Mark’s gospel. But Jesus turns the tables on the disciples and asks them to explain to him what they talked about on the way. Embarrassed, aware of the unproductive and inadequate way of explaining Jesus’ message to themselves, they keep silence.
Jesus knows, however, how their conversation had gone. They’d turned his message of suffering, cross, and resurrection into winning, ruling, and victory (“they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest”). Whenever we are tempted to talk of “greatness,” we can be sure we have gone wrong. A decade or so ago Time magazine christened Stanley Hauerwas “America’s Best Theologian.” Hauerwas responded that “best” is not a Christian category! Would that the rest of us learn such a “Christian” way of speaking.
Jesus then takes a child a places him in the midst of the disciples and breathtakingly redefines “greatness” as “welcoming” such into their fellowship. To be able to welcome the unseen and no accounts requires us to be able to tell the Christian story, the gospel, in terms they can grasp and embrace (like my attempt in talking to my grandson). While serious conversation among us Christ-followers is necessary, it always needs to take place in relationship to the living Jesus and with a view toward “welcoming” the “children” of the world into our fellowship. Otherwise, it degenerates into insider-speak that communicates little or nothing to those around us. That this has often happened, at least in North America, seems undeniable. That it continues, is unconscionable.
In the welcoming, or not, of the “child” (literally or figuratively), we are also somehow welcoming, or not, not only Jesus but God the Father who sent him to love and save all his wayward creatures. Could there be stakes any higher than this?